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Preview: Winter Gardens Film Festival 2022

This week the Winter Gardens and other venues across Blackpool welcome back the annual Winter Gardens Film Festival – after an unexpected two-year hiatus. Running from Wednesday to Sunday (9-13 March) the 2022 programme features screenings, talks, discussions and workshops for movie fans and film-makers and this year it’s bringing silent film back to historic Opera House. 

Following a screening of Mary Poppins Returns for schools on Wednesday morning, the North West Film Archive will show Blackpool on Film in the afternoon – a fascinating dip into the archive’s collection featuring the seaside town. Wednesday night features a festival highlight – a live accompaniment to the classic silent film Hindle Wakes on the house Wurlitzer. 

Based on the famous Stanley Houghton play of the 1910s the film follows a strong-minded young woman who challenges Edwardian society’s sexual double-standards. Estelle Brody takes on the role of millworker Fanny, who meets the wealthy mill-owner’s son Alan on a ‘wakes week’ holiday to Blackpool and embarks upon a casual affair. Alec Walters will play guests in and out of the auditorium and David Ivory will provide the live performance on the organ – an instrument of national and historic significance as the only original Wurlitzer remaining in a UK theatre.

Rock seller on Blackpool Promenade - courtesy of the North West Film Archive
Estelle Brody and John Stuart canoodling in front of Blackpool Tower, Hindle Wakes (1927)

It’s a fitting start to the festival which celebrates its main venue’s rich history. Built in 1939 as a cine-variety theatre, the Opera House combines a super cinema with a world-class stage for theatrical performance. It’s beautiful interior and capacity of just under 3000 – making it the second largest theatre in the UK – gives festival screenings a real sense of 1930’s Hollywood glamour.

But the Winter Gardens Film Festival is far from backwards looking. Not only does the theatre boast a permanent HD/surround sound cinema projection system, the programme includes a number of events addressing contemporary concerns. At Central Library on Thursday it joins forces with the 15th Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival to host Iris on the Move – Trans Stories: a diverse selection of short films showcasing unique stories from around the world. Iris Prize director Berwyn Rowlands joins the audiences to introduce the collection of films which include God’s Daughter Dances in which a transgender female dancer, Shin-mi, gets a call fit called up for military examination in South Korea. 

“We are very excited about visiting Blackpool for the first time with the best of the best award winners. What’s great about film festivals is you also get to meet the filmmakers,” says Rowlands, who will also host a Q&A with James Bell and Leo Lebeau, who were awarded the CO-OP audience winner at Iris 2021 for their film Birthday Boy. The short film features Alex, a transgender boy as he reflects on his experiences at a private all girls school from a hospital bed following a violent attack on his birthday. 

Birthday Boy, courtesy of the Iris Prize
God's Daughter Dances, courtesy of the Iris Prize.

The festival is organised by arts organisation Aunty Social, who is also behind Blackpool Social Club and this year we are proud to host our own screening at Art B&B on Friday evening. Dream Town: A Brief Anatomy of Blackpool is the 1994 film that follows actor David Thewlis as he returns to his hometown – a place where beer is drunk and dreams are played out against the backdrop of a thoroughly British fantasy. The film will be followed by an informal discussion to explore how perceptions of Blackpool have changed over the years, referencing the work of filmmakers who (love it or loathe it) have seen Blackpool as an irresistible location.

On Saturday afternoon there are more short films from Iris on the Move, this time hosted in the Winter Garden Pavilion and including the the winner of the Iris Prize and Iris Prize Best British awards for 2021. Baba follows queer Libyan teenager, Britannia living in the tunnels beneath Tripoli as he dreams of escape to a better life. In the same venue on Saturday evening, promising local filmmakers and BA Film-making students from Blackpool School of Arts will introduce and share their work during a showcase event.

Last but not least the festival closes on Sunday with Swing into Spring – a traditional tea dance. Drop in to Winter Gardens Pavilion on this day for vintage film clips, fashion, music and dancing, plus an introduction to Blackpool’s incredible dance history from Showtown’s assistant curator.

“The festival has been away for two years and we’ve sorely missed being able to host screenings,” says festival director, Catherine Mugonyi. “Our volunteer group has kept in touch online through the pandemic and we’re all really excited about coming back to enjoy the cinema together.”

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